Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Teachers and Malawi’s development goals: Thoughts for World Teachers Day 2022

It’s only Wednesday, but it has been a busy week in Malawi’s education space. On Sunday 2nd October the Minister of Education, Hon. Agnes NyaLonje and the Executive Secretary of the Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB), Professor Dorothy Nampota, released the results of the 2022 Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSLCE) examinations. The next day, on Monday 3rd October the Ministry announced that it would be recruiting 4,125 auxiliary teachers from the Initial Primary Teacher Education (IPTE) Cohort 13, and some from cohort 14. And today, 5th October, is World Teachers Day. Social media worldwide and in Malawi has been awash with messages of celebratory goodwill for teachers.

The most dominant news in Malawi, however, has been the PSLCE results and the two top performers, a girl and a boy, who both got 448 points out of 500. Mirriam Kachala, 13, is from Chipiloni Primary School in Zomba, and Joseph Magombo, 12, is from Nankhaka Primary School in Lilongwe. Their secondary education will be supported by scholarships from Press Trust Limited. Other well-wishers have also been donating sums of money to support the two students beyond secondary school.

Mirriam Kachala. Photo from Ministry of Education

Joseph Magombo. Photo from Ministry of Education
Many were pleasantly surprised to learn that out of the 260,295 students who sat the exam, 216,664 passed, representing 83.24 percent. Many were equally dismayed to learn that only 89,404 students have been selected to public secondary schools, representing 41.62 percent, an improvement of 4 percent over last year’s selection rate of 37 percent. The pass rate for girls (78.33 percent) is ten percent lower than boys (88.21 percent), while the pass rate for special needs students (72.85 percent) is 11 percent lower than the other students.  

This year’s cohort entered Standard One in the 2014-2015 academic year. The 2015 Education Statistics Bulletin indicates that there were 1,061,868 learners in Standard One in that year. 

The math shows that 801,573 learners did not make it to Standard 8, having dropped out, or having been held back to repeat. That represents 75 percent of the cohort. Put differently, three out of four learners who entered Standard One in 2014-2015 did not make it to Standard 8 by the year 2022. These are disturbing numbers, but they are not new. We already know, from the 2018 Population and Housing Census, that amongst our 14-17 year olds, the official secondary school age, three out of four are not in school.

The numbers will improve in the near future, owing to a number of projects in the education sector. The Secondary Education Expansion for Development (SEED) project, funded by USAID, is constructing and expanding 250 secondary schools. Assuming that 250 new secondary schools were constructed today, and each accommodated 600 new students, we would improve secondary school enrolment by 150,000, which would be enough to accommodate all the 127,000 Standard 8 learners who have not been selected to secondary school this year. More secondary schools are being constructed and expanded through other projects also, including the European Union-funded Improving Secondary Education in Malawi (ISEM) II, and the World Bank-funded Equity with Quality Learning at Secondary (EQUALS) project. As I observed in an earlier piece, progress has been an issue, and there have been substantial delays.

The news announced on Monday, about the recruitment of 4,125 auxiliary teachers to go into primary schools, did not receive the same enthusiasm as the release of the PSLCE results. Auxiliary teachers are slowly becoming the norm as the government is unable to recruit full time teachers. This should not be allowed to continue. As of August this year, 17,438 primary school teachers have been trained, from IPTE Cohort 13 which graduated in 2020, to Cohort 16, which sat their final examinations in August 2022. The government is unable to recruit these teachers on a full time basis largely due to a wage bill cap that is part of a policy regimen of conditionalities that come with the Extended Credit Facility that Malawi is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund.

The public only gets snippets of the ongoing negotiations, making it difficult to know exactly why the government needs to observe particular conditionalities. Memories of 2011 and 2012 are still fresh in the minds of many, when then President Bingu wa Mutharika openly disagreed with the IMF on conditionalities. We all know what happened to the Malawi economy, and there have been near reminisces lately.

Today, on World Teachers Day, it is important to think about the role of teachers towards achieving Malawi’s national goals. During the recent United Nations General Assembly summit in New York, world leaders made pledges towards transforming education in their countries and globally. Most pledges made mentioned the central role of teachers. Malawi’s President Dr. Lazarus Chakwera presented a Statement of Malawi’s commitments, which included making education mandatory for every child from early childhood through to secondary education. The Government of Malawi, through the President, also pledged, among others, to ensure 100 percent enrollment rate in primary school, 100 percent primary school completion rate, 100 percent transition rate to secondary school, and 100 percent secondary school completion rate.

It is difficult to imagine how Malawi's commitments to transforming education can be fulfilled without adequate teachers in primary and secondary school. As enrollments improve, as they are expected to, more and more young people will be in school, and more and more teachers will be needed to teach them. There has to be a solution to the impasse caused by the IMF conditionalities, otherwise we should forget about achieving any of the education goals by 2030, or, let alone, 2063.



Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Why Malawi’s education sector could be on the cusp of change

On 5th April, 2022, Minister of Education, Hon. Agnes NyaLonje presented a ministerial statement to Parliament on the status of government projects in the primary and secondary education sub-sectors. The statement paints the grim reality of problems gripping the country’s education system, but it also shows that if we can follow through on current policy plans, strategies, and the national vision, we might be on the cusp of change over the foreseeable future.

It is nothing short of a national scandal, as we have known since the 2018 population and housing census, that 85 percent of 14-17 year-old Malawians are out of school. It is deeply troubling that 62 percent of students who pass the Standard 8 examination have nowhere else to go because our public secondary school capacity accommodates only 38 percent of those who pass. Such is the precarity and fragility of our education and social protection systems that 450,000 primary school learners (8 percent) have dropped out of school since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic. For secondary school students, that number is 37,000 (9 percent).

Before the cyclones between January and March this year, 10 percent of primary school learners were using temporary classrooms, while 25 percent were using open air classrooms. According to the Ministry of Education, the cyclones affected 476 schools in 22 education districts. There is a deficit of 4.4 million desks for both primary and secondary schools. At the primary school level, 75 percent of learners do not have a desk.

There is progress being made, but it is slow. The government has been constructing three teacher training colleges, but four years since construction started, not even one has been completed. Indications are that all three will be completed this year, which will be a great development. The Secondary Education Expansion for Development (SEED) project, which aims to expand or construct 250 secondary schools, started in 2018, and is expected to end in 2023. With one year to go, the project has constructed only 16 new secondary schools, and expanded only 30. Hopefully there will be an extension, owing to the delays this important project has encountered.

There are positive signs on the horizon, however. There are ambitious and forward looking policies and strategies that, if strictly followed and implemented, could lead to tremendous improvements in the system by 2030 and beyond. The MIP-1, the implementation plan for the first 10 years of the Malawi 2063 vision, has made several strategic provisions. By 2025 all primary schools are expected to have an Early Childhood Education program to ensure that every child has access to public pre-school. Currently only 28 percent of our children have access to pre-school, and these are mostly privately owned centres in urban areas. Access to early childhood education will help most children enter primary school well prepared, and succeed.

Currently about 800,000 children enter Standard One every year, and only about 300,000 survive to Standard 8. This explains why 67 percent of Malawians aged 15 and above do not have any school qualification, according to the 2018 population and housing census. There are far more Malawians outside the school system, than those in school, especially those of adolescent and young adult ages. The budget has nothing for them. The MIP-1 provides for community learning centres, which would address this problem.

There are three other really important strategic interventions the government is undertaking. The Ministry of Education is introducing Open, Distance and eLearning across the entire education system. This could unlock access for millions of Malawians who are denied an opportunity for education especially at secondary and tertiary levels. The Ministry is also developing a new science, technology and innovation strategy that, together with the ODeL strategy, could solve major problems of access, quality, research and innovation across the education system.

There is also a National Teacher Policy that aims to transform the teaching profession and make it central to improving the quality of education and enhance human development capabilities. Once launched, the teaching profession may not be the same. At the heart of Malawi 2063 and the MIP-1 are education, knowledges and competencies to deliver on the aspirations both in the short term and in the long term. That is why one of the seven pillars of Malawi 2063 is human capital development, which others prefer to call human capabilities to ward off the exploitative scent of neoliberal thinking. The education system, and teachers in particular, are therefore central to the achievement of the national vision.

So what we really need to do, as a nation, is to make sure we all understand the vision we have set for ourselves. Even more important is to develop a strong implementation mindset to ensure that we follow through on what we have pledged to do. We should put behind us the era of developing brilliant policies and strategies but failing to implement them. The Malawi 2063 and the MIP-1 are brilliant, well thought out documents. But they need to be seen as living documents that can respond to shifting ground. They also require vigilance and determination, especially in the governance and public sector performance areas.

What is most crucial about the new policies and strategies is that they need to aim at growing the economy exponentially, for the country to be able to start financing and implementing the national vision in the mid-term and in the long term. The current education sector investment plan for the period 2020 to 2030 envisages that for 2022, the education sector requires MK1 trillion. The 2022-2023 budget passed in Parliament recently has allocated MK462 billion to the education sector; not even half of what is needed. This is a problem of the national economy and governance systems.

Currently there is about K153 billion ($180 million) from development partners going into the primary education sub-sector, and about K204 billion ($240 million), also from development partners, being spent on the secondary education sub-sector. Development projects in the education sector are still heavily dependent on donor aid, largely due to the size of our economy which is incapable of funding huge infrastructure projects. There is hope that the MIP-1 strategy might help to begin to change things.

The massive corruption and theft that have now become a daily front page routine pose an existential threat to the national vision, but one we can overcome, if we are determined enough.

Monday, November 15, 2021

I dream of a teaching profession that attracts the best and brightest motivated young Malawians

A TV Station interviewing a 2021 Malawian outstanding teacher (Photo credit: © Steve Sharra)

The Lamp Magazine interview by Joseph Kayira, May 2021

JK: The results of the retaken 2020 MSCE examination show that 81,017 candidates out of 138,310 have failed representing 41.42 percent, a pass rate said to be the worst in a decade. What is your take on this?

SS: The poor results of the 2020 MSCE examinations were shocking and disappointing, but they cannot be said to have been unforeseen. It would have taken a miracle for the majority of students to have excelled after schools were closed for six months, and then the exams were cancelled midway through due to massive leakages and cheating. As the elders would have put it, this was “muvi woyang’anira”. It was heartwarming to see some students still going ahead to score six points and others with several distinctions, so all is not lost.

JK: What’s your opinion on some experts who think the Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB) should take responsibility for this unfortunate situation where these 81,017 candidates find themselves in.

SS: MANEB’s responsibility is to assess students, not to teach them. What these results have done is to hold up a mirror for us to see how our public secondary school system is performing.

JK: Was it not proper for MANEB to consider reducing the passing rate in view of the Covid-19 induced holiday forcing students stay home for some time?

SS: Reducing the passing mark would compromise the quality of education because it would depict a false image of how our public secondary school system is performing. We would end up lulling ourselves into a false sense of satisfaction; sending to universities and into employment people whose educational qualifications would not be congruent with their true level of knowledge and skills. Perhaps MANEB could have asked the Ministry of Education to delay the exams by another month or two, to allow teachers and students a little more time to prepare. But reducing the pass mark would have had undesirable consequences. The solution is to systematically study the conditions in the system, and address them.

 JK: Others think MANEB punished MSCE candidates for the examination leakage hence the poor results.

SS: If that were true, it would be unfortunate. An examining authority cannot set an exam whose purpose is to make students fail. It would entail examining students on content that was beyond their level and scope. That would be not only unethical, it would also be irresponsible. I stand to be corrected, but I hope that is not what happened.

JK: How best can MANEB handle similar situations in future to avoid the 2020 examination saga?

SS: There was a promise to carry out investigations, both internal and external. I am not aware of any reports that have been released in that regard. If the investigations were systematic and meticulous, then MANEB and the Ministry must have identified where things went wrong, and why. It was reassuring to see that the re-run happened without leakages and cheating, so one hopes whatever lessons were learned from the investigations were applied. It will take consistent due diligence to ensure that the 2020 scenario does not repeat itself in future. The integrity of our education system hinges on the conduct and credibility of the national examination process.

JK: Do you think MANEB has all the support it needs from its stakeholders to properly prepare and manage examinations?

SS: In recent years MANEB was able to demonstrate professionalism and credibility, which may be taken to mean that it has been getting the support it needs from key stakeholders. The national examination process has many layers of complexity, and requires the support and collaboration of many players. Achieving success in such a complex undertaking takes all the players sharing the ultimate goal, that of improving our education system and upholding its integrity.

JK: For months teachers, through Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM), have been fighting government [Ministry of Education] asking for risk allowance in view of the Covid-19 pandemic. Were they justified to go on strike for that reason?

SS: There are two ways of looking at this. First, the teachers’ demands for covid-19 risk allowances were made in a political economy context where “allowances” have come to symbolize benefits and entitlements that have in the end created inequalities that are eating at the core of the country’s social fabric. Thus “allowances” operate in a culture where the elite accumulate for themselves benefits, privileges and power, at the expense of everyone else. That self-accumulation has been blatantly evident in the way covid-19 relief funds have been handled. People who were not at risk to the corona virus because of the nature of their work helped themselves to those funds.

The second way of looking at this question it through the prism of risk itself, real or perceived. Teachers were considered to be at some level of risk, and therefore deserving of allowances, but that decision was changed without explanation. Malawian classrooms in the public schools are so overcrowded it is impossible to achieve the social distance needed to keep away the virus. And young people are known to be carriers of corona virus without exhibiting symptoms. Classrooms are enclosed spaces and epidemiologists have pointed out this as a significant factor in the spread of the virus. Teachers and learners spend long hours inside those enclosed spaces. Teachers were not given PPE; instead, they were made to make their own masks at training sessions where even the money meant for their lunch allowances was swindled.

JK: How should the culture of allowances be handled in this country? Were teachers right or wrong to ask for risk allowance?

SS: When testing for corona virus reached boarding secondary schools, the numbers of students who were found positive were alarming. In some schools the infection rate was fifty percent. Teachers especially in boarding schools were justifiably concerned about their safety from the virus. By the way many teachers use their personal funds to make purchases for their learners and for their classrooms. This happens all over the world. Giving them the allowance would have been a reasonable gesture of appreciation for what teachers do, much of which is thankless. And some would use the money to buy PPE.

The injustice in how the allowances were handled was blatant, and it would have been na├»ve to expect teachers to just watch and keep quite. That is the context in which we should understand the teachers’ demands for risk allowances.

We all await the report and recommendations from the taskforce that the president announced to look into the issue of allowances, procurement and employment contracts, headed by the Vice President. Hopefully that process will bring sanity to the corrosive culture that the allowances syndrome has created.

JK: Wouldn’t you agree with those who are criticizing teachers for not being sensitive enough to go on strike at a time when the learners needed them most and at a time the country was, and still is in a crisis?

SS: In contexts where injustices are rampant, people tend to be strategic in deciding when to make their demands heard. If Malawi were a society where people were treated with dignity and respect, and people’s pleas for recognition were listened to, the teachers’ demands would have been considered insensitive. But we have created a society where the elite feel entitled to all the privileges and accumulate for themselves benefits and perks. The teachers were trying to make their voices heard in such a context. It is unfortunate that this happened when the education system was at its worst moment due to the covid-19 pandemic, but given everything we have seen, one can understand where the teachers are coming from. 


Minister of Education, Hon. Agnes NyaLonje, awarding a 2021 outstanding teacher
(Photo credit: © Steve Sharra)

JK: Do you think teachers have better working conditions in this country? How is Malawi ranked when it comes to remuneration of teachers in this region?

SS: When we talk about teachers’ working conditions, we talk about several things. We talk about school and classroom conditions, where teachers spend a lot of their time. The infrastructure alone needs to be appealing, hygienic, and fit for purpose. Teacher-pupil ratios need to be reasonable. Workloads also need to be reasonable so that workers can have a good work-life balance. Education relies on equipment and materials to facilitate teaching and learning. Then there are issues of remuneration and benefits. 

In Malawi teachers’ conditions, as defined, are not conducive. Classes are so large it takes a lot of work to manage them. Much of the infrastructure, especially in rural areas, is below standard. Teaching and learning materials are a big problem. In her report on the 2020 MSCE results, the Minister of Education, Hon. Agnes NyaLonje, stated that students in lower secondary classes are sharing one textbook to five students. In the upper secondary classes, that is Forms 3 and 4, the situation is so bad that up to 25 students are sharing one textbook. What that means is that many students are going the whole school year without touching a school book. That is a sure recipe for the disaster unfolding before our eyes.

There is also the important aspect of professional growth and career path, which is a huge bottleneck in our educational system. Many teachers work hard over many years but are never rewarded through promotions or other modes of recognition. Many times promotions are politicized. Many teachers are frustrated, and morale has been low for a very long time, it has become a chronic problem. There are now efforts to institutionalise a performance management system, a teacher management strategy, and a continuous professional development framework that should make career progression systematic and realistic. Once that system is established, it should restore hope in the profession and make it attractive again. It should also help retain teachers.

In terms of remuneration, teachers’ salaries are calibrated within the civil service salary structure, and teachers start at one level higher. However, salaries are just one part of the remuneration and privileges ecosystem, and in this regard teachers have the lowest benefits when compared to other sectors in the civil service. In comparative terms with the region, Malawian teachers’ salaries appear to be at par with the region, as far as power purchasing parity is concerned. But Malawi’s economy is in the lower ranks in the region, which puts Malawian teachers also in the lower ranks. Considering the role teachers play in the development of a nation, it is important to give teachers’ remuneration and benefits special consideration. We need to make the teaching profession attractive and appealing to young people. 

JK: How dangerous is the standoff between TUM and government to the welfare of teachers in Malawi?

SS: It is very dangerous. Teaching and learning rely on a lot of factors lining up symmetrically and working in sync. Learners learn best when teachers are motivated, respected and encouraged, and when teachers’ personal welfare and professional aspirations are taken care of. Classrooms are sensitive places that require a teacher who is mentally prepared to teach and is focused on helping students learn. The current atmosphere makes it very difficult for teachers to feel motivated and appreciated. The vitriol coming from certain quarters betrays an ugly underbelly of deep-seated resentment and contempt for teachers. That is very unfortunate.

JK: What should TUM do to puts its house in order for it was apparent during the recent standoff that the centre is no longer holding?

SS: TUM has existed over the decades. It started out as a teachers’ association from the time when schools were run by missionaries, to the time of independence. It has represented the voices of teachers very well over the years. That said, TUM does have issues that it needs to sort out. It needs to be responsive to the needs of its membership, and to be open and transparent. It is the membership that defines an organization, and where it derives its power. It is in listening to and representing the membership that TUM’s significance and influence will grow stronger. There are clear ongoing attempts to weaken and destroy TUM, which shows a lack of understanding of why TUM exists. The leadership of TUM needs to be cautious of attempts to politicize what the organization stands for, and to manipulate how it represents its constituency. These need to be resisted at all costs.

JK: Your final word?

SS: The goals we have set for ourselves for the Malawi we want will not be achieved if we sideline teachers and treat them as second class civil servants. It is teachers who will educate young Malawians and impart to them the skills and mindsets that this country needs to prosper. Teachers have an enormous responsibility in delivering the Malawi we all want. The values with which we treat teachers are the same values teachers will treat learners with. We need to be mindful of this always. I dream of a country that treats the teaching profession, in deed and in action, as the most important profession. I dream of a teaching profession that attracts the best and brightest motivated young Malawians because they understand education as the foundation for building a better Malawi.

Note: A version of this interview appeared in the May 2021 issue of The Lamp magazine. 

To build the Malawi we want, start with the way we treat teachers

Malawi News Hardtalk Interview by Rebecca Chimjeka (6th March, 2021)

RC: In your view are the teachers justified to demand risk allowances during the covid-19 pandemic?

SS: The teachers' strike brings into sharp relief difficult dilemmas from both sides, and calls for our best thinking for what is good for the education system, and for the country, in the long term. From the teachers’ side, one needs to appreciate the decades of official neglect, insignificance and undermining of the profession teachers have endured. As civil servants, teachers view their benefits, their public image and their noble role, in comparison to other civil servants. The differences are stark. Teachers see what is happening to public finances, in particular funds meant for fighting covid-19, and see their names implicated when they have not partaken in the plunder. Teachers are sharply aware of the unfairness, the elite ridicule, and what they see as the government’s inconsiderate attitude.

On the government’s side, the worry is understandably on the effect of any decisions on the public purse, the precedence this sets for other sectors, and the fate of millions of children. These are valid and genuine worries.

There is differential treatment towards the teachers in terms of how risk allowances are being allocated and how personal protection equipment (PPE) is being distributed. Teachers were told they would have to make their own masks, and were given training. Yet expenditure reports indicated that teachers were given masks. Most of the equipment and funds they received were inadequate, yet expenditure reports were bloated with false figures. Whether teachers are justified or not in striking needs to be understood in that context.

RC: Do you think Government is handling the sit in by teachers properly?

SS: Seen from the public gallery, Government seems to be taking the teachers for granted. It is rather curious that recommendations for risk allowances made by the education covid-19 task force in July 2020 were conveniently ignored and no explanation was provided. We are getting reports that in the crisis meetings that have been happening this week, the issue of allowances is being evaded and avoided. It makes one question whether government is negotiating in good faith.

RC: If one were to say it's morally wrong for teachers who were at home for 3 months on full pay, to now demand allowances from Government just when they have been told to go back to work, what will be your comment?

SS: What is morally wrong is to treat teachers as second class civil servants and to ignore their pleas for fairness and equality in how they are treated. The demand for allowances is not coming out of nowhere. It is coming from a perception of perennial persecution and insignificance, and a history of occupational invisibility. One wishes teachers did not choose this awkward, sensitive moment to stage the strike, given everything that has happened with covid-19 since March 2020. But truth be told, we need to be empathetic towards the teachers’ struggle for fairness and equality. There is virtue in acknowledging mis-steps in handling an unprecedented crisis such as this pandemic, and taking concrete steps to correct things. If done in good faith and in appreciation of the plight teachers are in, most teachers are reasonable, understanding and patriotic.

RC: If Government was to bow down to their demands, do you think it will be sustainable and what economic consequences will this have for Malawi?

SS: We need to think in the long term. Teachers are the foundation the country needs to set itself on the path to inclusive, equitable wealth creation and self-reliance, as we have expressed in the new long term vision, Malawi 2063. Achieving that long term vision is crucially dependent on a teaching workforce that is highly motivated, highly educated, and attracts the best and brightest young Malawians. That type of teaching workforce would transform this country beyond any short term considerations, and would put the country on a path to long term sustainability and economic prosperity.

RC: Anything you want to add?

SS: Two things. First, the culture of allowances has been allowed to fester and to distort our work ethic and government’s obligations to improve remuneration in the civil service. What we are seeing today is a legacy of that problem. It is a welcome development that there is now a taskforce to study and review the public service procedures, including allowances.

Lastly, a lot of things need to change if we are to achieve our societal dreams and aspirations. We need to build a society that values hard work, integrity, ethical conduct, human dignity, fairness, equity and equality, compassion, resilience, self-reliance, trust in our capabilities, and hope for the future. To build such a society, it must start with the way we treat teachers, and it will transfer to the society at large. Teachers will be critical in inculcating these values into the young Malawians who will deliver the Malawi we want.

Note: A version of this interview appeared on the Hardtalk page of the Malawi News on Saturday, 6th March, 2021. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Malawi’s education crisis and the use of evidence in policy, planning and practice

When the report of the 2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census was released in May 2019, there was one statistic that I found astounding. Amongst 14-17 year-old Malawian youths, the official secondary school age bracket, 82 percent of them were not in school. Only 18 percent were. I expected this statistic, which I considered to be a national crisis, to make front page and news headlines. It did not. Perhaps understandably. The focus was on the overall population figure, the percentage of young people, and other equally important findings. The education statistics largely went unnoticed.

Photo credit: © Steve Sharra

On the evening of Monday 7th December this week, President Dr. Lazarus Chakwera hosted representatives from private industry for a state dinner at Sanjika Palace to address this issue. As far as I can recall, this was the first time in living memory that a president convened a key stakeholder constituency to discuss a particular problem facing the education sector. Finally, this national scandal has attracted the attention of the highest political office in the country. I would have missed it, had it not been for a colleague who stumbled upon the event on MBC TV, and alerted us on a professional whatsapp forum. For some reason, there seems to have been very little publicity ahead of the event.

I dropped everything I was doing, went to the TV, and found the Secretary for Education, Ms. Chikondano Mussa, presenting the status of secondary school education in the country. She had new figures. From 82 percent of 14-17 year-olds being out of school as of 2018, the figure was now at 86 percent in 2020. Out of over 1.7 million youths in that age range, only 460,000 are in school. There was one textbook for every five students, and only 24 percent of secondary school students were able to complete four years per cycle. The secondary school sub-sector loses 11 percent of its students every year, and 3 percent repeat. Only 6 percent are able to proceed to university. There was a shortage of science teachers, as well as teaching and learning materials.

Community Day Secondary Schools, originally introduced as distance education centres which have evolved into community secondary schools, bear the brunt of the quality conundrum. There are 753 of them in the country, and 303 of them operate what are known as open secondary schools. Open Secondary Schools accommodate an afternoon school system as a way of extending secondary education access to those who cannot find space in the conventional system. They also take in adults who want to return to school.

Community and open secondary schools take up almost 60 percent of the entire secondary school population. Of the 10,000 or so secondary school students who proceed to university annually, only 15 percent come from community and open secondary schools. The majority, 85 percent, come from better-resourced national and district boarding secondary schools, as well as from prestigious private secondary schools.

When it was her turn to speak, the Minister of Education, Hon. Agnes NyaLonje likened the enrollment bottleneck to a 6-lane highway at the primary level, narrowing down to a single-lane highway at the secondary level, ending up as a dirt road at the tertiary level. The country’s tertiary enrollment rate is less than one percent; to be precise, 0.8 percent. It is the lowest tertiary enrollment rate in the world, according to UNESCO statistics. As I pointed out in a recent blog post, this incredibly low tertiary enrollment rate is the ultimate result of access problems that clog the entire education pipeline, right from early childhood education where only one in three Malawian children has access.

Hon. NyaLonje presented what she termed three key messages to the captains of industry gathered at the presidential dinner. The first key message was the power of data, or evidence, in formulating and implementing education policies. She pointed out how important and powerful it was to know the shocking extent of Malawian youths who were out of the school system. Her second key message was for everyone to recognize how strategically positioned secondary school education was, between primary and tertiary education, in an interconnected education system. The third key message was directed at the captains of industry themselves. Thus far, Malawi had heavily relied upon development partners for investments into the country’s education system. Malawians were now ready, observed the Minister, to take up the lead in investing in the country’s education so that all Malawians have access to quality and inclusive education. “The transformed Malawi that we want is within our grasp”, she said.

Ms. NyaLonje then laid out an immediate vision and a long-term vision for the country’s education sector. The immediate vision was the construction of 34 top quality secondary schools, one in each education district, to be centres of education excellence, in the model of Kamuzu Academy. At a minimum, these schools would cost MK100 billion (approx $133 million) to become operational. The long-term vision was for adequate quality infrastructure at all the levels of the education sector, so that all Malawian children, youths and young adults can go to school and attain a good quality education.  

What did Malawi’s private industry stand to gain by generously investing in the quality of Malawi’s secondary schools? Hon. NyaLonje pointed out at that quality education was a catalyst to achieving Malawi’s dream of becoming a middle-income country. A high quality education would produce high quality graduates who would turn around the fortunes of Malawian companies and industries, enabling them to improve their productivity and expand their growth. And that would also grow the country’s economy and generate more resources to improve the lives of Malawians. Improving the quality of education in the country is therefore in their own interest, as the ultimate beneficiaries of highly educated and skilled graduates, as the Minister exhorted.

It may have taken two years since the National Statistics Office showed the nation the extent of the challenges facing the country’s education system, but the matter has finally drawn the attention of the president. In his speech, the president expressed his own shock at the figures, and used the imagery of a mirror that reflects the true image of how one looks.

In the four or so months she has been Minister of Education, Hon. NyaLonje has used every occasion she has had to stress the role of research and evidence in Malawi’s education policymaking and implementation process. The Ministry of Education has developed a remarkable capacity for collecting and analyzing education data, and has been making this data publicly available for many years. How that data has been used to inform education policymaking has not been very clear.

One month ago today, on 9th November, the Ministry released the 2020 Education Sector Performance Review report. The report revealed some new education data since last year’s report. Secondary school enrollment had increased to 415,000 students, and that there were 13,000 more male students that females. There were 1,494 secondary schools in the country, and 55 percent of them did not have science laboratories. The availability of electricity was quite impressive, with 82 percent of secondary schools connected to either the national grid, or alternative energy sources.

The importance of data and evidence in policy making is crucial not only to education, but to the entire public policy architecture. However, the very idea of data and evidence itself needs a critical perspective. Some of the education statistics presented by the Minister of Education and the Secretary of Education at Sanjika Palace on Monday differ from the statistics presented in the 2020 Education Sector Performance Review report released four weeks ago.

For example, the Secretary for Education presented the total secondary school enrollment as 460,000, yet the 2020 ESPR report puts the figure at 415,000. Even in the 2020 ESPR itself, there are two different figures for the total number of secondary schools. On page 69 of the ESPR the total number of secondary schools in the country is given as 1,494. This shows a slight increase from the number given in the 2018 Education Management Information System (EMIS), which was 1,486.

The 2020 ESPR says the number of public secondary schools in the country stands at 884, but it does not give the total number of private secondary schools. The 2018 EMIS gave the total number of private secondary schools as 353. The 2020 ESPR gives the total primary school enrollment as just under 5.3 million, while the Secretary for Education said the figure was around 6 million.  

Some of the confusion with the numbers arises from the way secondary schools are classified. What are called Open Secondary Schools are not separate, independent schools with their own structures. They are afternoon classes that take place on the premises of existing secondary schools, but are counted as separate schools, for administrative purposes. On Monday the Secretary for Education said there were 303 of these. There has not been another EMIS since the 2018 version, which was released in 2019. The 2020 EMIS, when released, will hopefully present more accurate, harmonized figures.

While using data is important, it is much more important for that data to be accurate. To its credit, the Ministry of Education has a highly developed capacity in data collection and analysis, despite other challenges. These are challenges that will gradually be overcome, especially now that the importance of data will become even more prominent in the policy making and implementation process.

The immediate vision of the Ministry to establish 34 new high quality secondary schools also deserves comment. When the late Dr. Hasting Kamuzu Banda constructed the Kamuzu Academy, he said it was modelled after Eton College, an exclusive, boys-only boarding school in England. Eton is famous for educating members of the British royal family and ruling class. Critics said the Kamuzu Academy was an ‘Eton in the bush,’ and saw it as a lavish, elitist undertaking. Kamuzu’s idea was for the school to educate future generations of Malawian leaders, based on British standards. He declared, at a public rally, that no mutu biii (impolite term for ‘black person’) could teach at Kamuzu Academy. The school enrolled two students from each of the then-24 districts of the country, one male and one female.

To date, Kamuzu Academy has produced individuals who have gone on to leadership positions in Malawi. When Kamuzu relinquished power in 1994, Kamuzu Academy was fully privatized and started enrolling only those students who could afford the exorbitant fees. When Bingu wa Mutharika was president, he resumed the practice of enrolling top students from the districts and paying for their school fees, but this stopped when he died in 2012.

Constructing 34 such top schools, one in each district, is as ambitious as it is bold. If it would operate on the original model of Kamuzu Academy, enrolling top performing, less privileged students from the districts and offering them scholarships, it would provide a high quality education to a group of young, poor Malawians who would otherwise not be able to afford such an expensive education.

As others have pointed out, the Ministry’s immediate vision as expressed by the Minister stops short of addressing the other glaring problem of education quality in the secondary school sector. Almost 60 percent of the country’s secondary school students attend community and open secondary schools, known to have the worst problems in terms of qualified teachers, infrastructure and teaching and learning materials. This challenge also needs its own immediate vision. It should be part of the national vision that every Malawian has access to education quality of the highest standards, rather than make it the preserve of just a few. Obviously this cannot be achieved overnight; it is a gradual process requiring massive investments and long term planning. As Professor Augustine Musopole has argued, Malawi also needs to develop a home-grown philosophy of education, based on a Malawian and regional worldview.

It is very pleasing to note that on the evening of the presidential dinner, the private sector present pledged MK400 million toward the 34 top schools initiative. Press Trust pledged MK300 million. Other pledges are expected soon, as corporations consult their boards to decide how much they can contribute. We will need to broaden our views on how to finance the education sector so as to raise the MK100 billion. We will need much more than that to achieve the long-term vision of high quality education for every Malawian. 

Speaking when he launched the investor education week earlier on the same Monday, 7th December, the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi, Dr. Grant Kabango said Malawi's pension assets had reached MK 1 trillion (approx. $1.3 billion) as of 30th September 2020. The Ministry of Education together with the Ministries of Finance and Economic Planning & Development will need to explore how these pension funds, currently lying idle, can be leveraged to finance the much beleaguered education sector.  

Photo credit: © Steve Sharra 

The challenges in our education system ought to be a top priority for us all. Outside private industry and development partners, alumni networks also have the potential of making massive contributions to addressing these challenges. There are countries where alumni take their responsibilities towards their former secondary schools very seriously. In Ghana, for example, alumni form networks that take a direct interest in the state of their former secondary schools. Cabinet ministers, army generals, captains of industries and others who have become influential in society take an active role in the welfare of their former schools, ensuring that they are well managed and adequately resourced, and maintain their national prestige.

Now that the problem of young Malawians who are out of the school system has drawn the attention of the country’s leadership, it is time to have a national conversation on how to address this problem. It must, however, be addressed alongside other equally pressing problems. These include the development of a Malawian philosophy of education, access to inclusive, quality tertiary education, and Malawian adults who never attended school. The Fifth Integrated Household Survey 2020 report, released in November, gives another shocking statistic: 80.7 percent of Malawians aged 5 and above do not have any school qualification.

It will be futile for us to address the problems of the education system, without addressing the broader problem of this large majority who do not have a meaningful education that can help them participate in and contribute to community and national development.  As we gingerly step into the new decade, toward the 2030 agenda, and toward the year 2063 in our long-term national vision and continental aspiration, education, and the teaching profession, will have to take a central role.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Fresh exams: MSCE rerun and the future of education in Malawi

Eighteen days after the Ministry of Education and the Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB) cancelled this year’s Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examination, students now have direction as to what happens next. On Sunday 22nd November the Ministry of Education released guidelines for secondary schools to follow in preparing for the re-take of the exams. There are still a few grey areas that need clarification, but the guidelines are a welcome action in moving forward. Most importantly, there are lessons to be learned from this national fiasco. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes that led to the mess, or we will risk jeopardizing the future of the education system and the lives of many young Malawians.

Photo credit: Steve Sharra

The press release from the Ministry states that Form 4 students whose exams were cancelled are expected to report back to school on Monday 28th December. This applies to both public and private schools. No further fees shall be paid, as fees for the third term had not yet been exhausted when the examination was cancelled on 4th November. The release further states that government will bear the cost of both examination fees as well as practical examinations. The rerun of the MSCE exam shall be completed by the end of January, 2021, therefore newly selected Form 1 students will be expected to report to school on 1st February 2021. The rest of the continuing students, Forms 2 to 4, are expected back on campus on 5th January, 2021.

After schools were closed in March due to the covid pandemic, the new MSCE exams calendar was from 27th October to 20th November. Massive and widespread leakages and cheating unraveled days after the exams commenced. Papers were shared on social media platforms ahead of their scheduled time. That made it impossible to determine who might have had advance access to the papers and who might not, let alone what paper would leak next. Continuing with the rest of the exams became an untenable position.

Not all 150,000 students would have accessed the papers before sitting them, and the decision to cancel the exam was most painful for those students who did not participate in the cheating. But it was the entire examination and the country’s national education system that were at stake, hence the decision to cancel the exam and do it all over again.  

There have been a few questions and observations that have been asked or raised on various social media forums. Will the government absorb all the exam-related costs for private schools as well? Does this mean Form 4 teachers will not enjoy their New Year’s holiday? With students returning to school and the retake of MSCE commencing a few days later, will schools and students have adequate preparation? As there are some 35 or so days to the 28th of December, what should schools and students be doing in the meantime?

These are all valid questions, but as others have observed, we are dealing with an unprecedented situation which demands unprecedented solutions. After more than two weeks of silence from the Ministry since the cancellation, teachers, parents and students were becoming anxious as it was not clear what the way forward was. Unscrupulous elements were beginning to fill the void and taking advantage of desperate students.

The Ministry will need to further clarify some issues, but it is very commendable that they have taken the bold decision to own up and take responsibility for the mess. The government’s decision to cover all the costs related to the exams ensures that innocent students are not doubly penalized by paying more fees. Educational policies are meant to be implemented across the system, for both public and private schools. However private schools in Malawi have their own set of dynamics that may require policies and guidelines to be modified to suit particular contexts.

For example, some private schools have already recalled their students as we speak. No wise Form 4 teacher can afford to take it easy and wait until the 28th of December. Recalling students back to school before the 28th December entails costs that fall outside the government’s arrangement. Of concern here is the issue of inequality. Some students will have the means to continue preparing for the examinations between now and 28th December, while many students will not. Schools will need to consult with parents and students and find mutually agreeable ways of utilizing the time between now and the end of December.

When schools re-opened on 7th September after the covid-19 closure, there wasn’t much time for students to prepare for the exams which were scheduled to start on 27th October. Many students, especially the less privileged ones, did not have the structures and facilities to allow them to continue learning while they were at home. Many of them felt unprepared when 27th October arrived. Unfortunately, there is little to suggest that they will utilize the next 36 days in a better way. It will take the foresight of school leaders, the dedication of teachers and the commitment of parents to plan ways of keeping students engaged with their school work as they await the re-take of the MSCE.

Moving forward, there are important lessons to be learned from what has happened. Key to learning these lessons will be the findings from the various investigations that were announced by MANEB itself, the Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Ministry of Education. If it was not apparent before this crisis, national examinations are an integral part of the education system and are of national interest. The public has a big stake in the examinations. MANEB is a public institution and runs on taxpayer money. Thus the Ministry of Education must be accountable to the people of Malawi, and they know this.

The MSCE is a high stakes examination. The MSCE can open or shut a door to one’s future. With a tertiary enrollment of 0.8 percent, Malawi ranks at the bottom of global league tables for access to further education. As Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has pointed out, this is a national scandal that needs urgent attention.

The problem is systemic because Malawi’s education sector loses students right from the pre-school level where only one in three children has access to early childhood education. One out of four children is out of school at the primary level, and four out of five youths are out of school at the secondary school level, according to the 2018 national population and housing census. Thus it is the entire pipeline that has a huge access problem, leading to the 0.8 percent tertiary enrollment rate.  

Examinations determine the futures of millions of young people and their families. National examinations also shape the international image of a country’s education system. There are jobs, tertiary education and other career paths awaiting students in their future. These depend a great deal on the integrity of national examinations.

Credit: Steve Sharra

The covid-19 pandemic has thrown an open challenge to rethink education systems for the future. Countries are now searching for ways to keep education systems going even when there are disruptions from pandemics, natural disasters or such other unforeseen crises. Countries must enhance their investments in educational technologies, including traditional ones. Learners must have books both at school and at home. Radios, televisions, computers and even mobile phones are very useful in providing ongoing education. More importantly, teachers must be properly educated in how to use these technologies and educational materials, especially in times of disruptions.

Beginning around 2011/12 MANEB engaged an extra gear in how they approached and prepared for national examinations. They crisscrossed the country engaging stakeholders, including communities, parents, the media and students themselves. This helped key stakeholders take ownership of the process to safeguard the security and integrity of national examinations. This did a lot to minimize incidences of leakages and cheating. When they happened, MANEB was able to move, identify the issue and isolate it, and address it with the relevant processes. The rest of the examinations were able to continue.

Something happened with the 2020 MSCE examinations. It is possible that covid-19 made it impossible for MANEB to do its usual stakeholder consultations and community sensitization of everyone’s role in ensuring the security and integrity of the examinations. As my colleague Dr. Limbani Nsapato observed, there is also the possibility that there were oversight slippages during the months when government parastatals, which include MANEB, went without Boards of Governors as we transitioned from the previous government to the current one. Only the investigations will help us know for sure.

It is therefore imperative that the investigations are carried out and completed, and that the reports are released, and utilized for the retake of the MSCE, and for future examinations. Failure to learn from this will create an existential crisis for the future of MANEB and the country’s educational system.


Monday, August 17, 2020

Shifting to a continuity paradigm: Re-opening Malawi’s schools in times of covid19

The discourse on the status of Malawi's schools in these times of covid19 was becoming too dichotomous. Either keep schools closed, as covid19 cases rise, or re-open schools, as kids have been idle for too long and many school girls are getting pregnant. What we weren’t talking much about was how to provide continuity of education beyond the pandemic. The Ministry of Education and some stakeholders made some effort to put some secondary school content online and provide data-free access to the Ministry’s portal. Some primary school subjects are also being aired on MBC radio.So some learners have continued learning. 

But without a proper research study to find out what percentage of the student population are accessing these materials, and to what extent they are engaging with the content in a meaningful way, it is difficult to assess the success of the online and radio lessons. Given what we know about some of our national indicators, it is doubtful that the two noble initiatives are benefitting many students.

The 2018 population census revealed that only 4 percent of Malawian households had a desktop computer, laptop or tablet. Internet access was at 16 percent, and radio possession was at 52 percent. The only distance education mode that would have a chance of reaching more students would have been books and print materials. There were indications that these were being prepared, but there has been no update as to what progress has been made.

It is one thing to put content online and on radio, but it is another to ensure that learners have meaningful and educative interaction with those materials. That would need the use of teachers. Teachers could have been given special training in how to support learners and help them better understand the online and radio content. In some West African countries teachers were trained in how to wear protective equipment and meet with learners and parents in homes or designated community spaces. The teachers were able to hear from learners about issues they were experiencing, provide psycho-social support, assign and assess school work, and also provide information on covid19. These were techniques learned from past Ebola pandemics.

Here at home, a few NGOs provided some training to teachers and parents in how to support learners, but these were isolated and uncoordinated efforts done is very few locations. The majority of our teachers have not engaged with their learners throughout the past five months. Thus the majority of our school-age children have not had any meaningful learning experiences. It will take a good research study to understand what experiences learners have been through.

Local and international media reports indicate that in some districts child rape has gone up by 150 percent, and teenage pregnancies have tripled. Before covid19, Malawi had the ninth highest adolescent fertility rate in the world, at 132 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19, according to World Bank statistics. This is not a new problem; covid19 has only worsened it.

Meanwhile, quite a few international private schools operating in Malawi did not even close. They just shifted to online learning. They saw the covid19 trends in other countries and started planning ahead. They informed parents and told them what to expect and how to prepare. They trained teachers and students alike and when it became necessary, they closed campus even before the government ordered schools to close. Students continued learning online and completed their terms or semesters. There are important lessons that Malawian private and public schools can share with each other, as Minister of Education Hon. Agnes NyaLonje observed the other week.

On Wednesday 12th August the Facebook page of the Ministry of Education posted an announcement stating that the National Planning Taskforce for the Re-opening of Schools, Colleges and Universities had prepared guidelines for re-opening of schools. I have come across, via whatsapp groups, two documents purporting to be guidelines for the reopening of primary and secondary schools, and colleges and universities, respectively. Assuming these documents are authentic and official, they are quite thorough, detailed and comprehensive. They appear to be the product of expert and thoughtful input from educationists and health experts.

The primary and secondary school guidelines even include a matrix of roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, a monitoring and evaluation plan, and a checklist of what schools need to have in place to re-open. In his weekly radio address of Saturday 15th August President Dr. Lazarus Chakwera’s stated that schools would be inspected and only those schools meeting covid19 prevention requirements would be allowed to re-open. We can only assume that the president was referring to the guidelines that are being shared via whatsapp.

For the remainder of the article, I want to make some observations on the guidelines for re-opening schools so as to provide insights into how to make them implementable. The key point I want to make is that beyond re-opening schools, we need to be thinking about the long term vision for education in the country. This will need to include providing for continuity in times of disruptions, and the importance of lifelong learning as national education policy. Regarding the re-opening guidelines, my focus is on the suggestions for remedial content to be the immediate focus, the absence of a timeframe, the need for infrastructure repair and maintenance, teacher continuous professional development, and inspections.

The guidelines stipulate a number of measures to prepare schools for re-opening. These include allowing back school administrators and teachers first so they can begin the work toward re-opening. Teachers must also be trained in covid19 prevention measures as well as in remedial teaching and psycho-social support for learners in preparation for re-opening. Once schools re-open, teachers should focus on remedial content for catching up, resuming from term two then continuing to term three.

The guidelines do not provide a timeframe for the suggested preparatory activities. That is a problem that needs to be addressed. The president said the re-opening of schools is scheduled for early September. That is less than two weeks from now. The only way this can happen is for the public to be made to understand that early September will be for school administrators and teachers only, so they can get started on the re-opening preparations.

There is a lot that needs to be done between now and the first week of September. Some schools will require some infrastructure maintenance to be done before even school managers and teachers can return. There is covid19 prevention resources that will need to go through public procurement processes before they can make their way to schools. School managers, teachers and methods advisers will need to be trained, most likely using cascade models that require weeks to move from national to division to district to zonal to school levels.

There are inspections that need to be carried out for each and every school before it can be certified read to re-open. There are more than 6,300 public and private primary schools, and more than 1,400 public and private secondary schools in the country. There is need for a timeframe to guide the steps needed to prepare schools for re-opening.

The idea to start with remedial content for purposes of catching up needs rethinking. It is important that the guidelines have included the provision for psycho-social support to learners, and that teachers should be trained in how to provide this also. However without clarification and direction, schools may see the two ideas as a trade-off, and may opt for one while ignoring the other. Examinations drive the entire conduct of our education system, and teachers will be under pressure to catch up on lost time. The psycho-social needs of learners will play second fiddle.

Given what learners will have gone through during the months schools were closed, attending to their psycho-social needs, on an ongoing basis, will be of paramount importance. In addition to the sexual violence some students will have suffered, others will have gone through psychological trauma, domestic violence, and other forms of uncertainty and insecurity. Some will have even seen family members suffer from covid19, and a few will have lost their family members from the pandemic.

Rushing to recover lost time and catch up with the syllabus will not work for these students. As has been noted in countries where schools have re-opened, teachers are having to play many roles for which they were not trained. They will need to be child psychologists, social workers, health workers, among many other roles. Thus preparing teachers to teach in times of covid19 will need to be a meticulous, well thought-through process of continuous teacher professional development.

The guidelines stipulate a maximum of 40 learners per class. They also suggest maximizing school time. In spite of these provisions, there is an underlying, if not paradoxical assumption that learners will need to come to school every day and spend a lot of time in class. This will be ill-advised. The number of learners in a class will depend on the size of the classroom and how many learners it can accommodate given physical distancing of more than one metre. The guidelines say there should be no more than two learners per desk. Most desks used in Malawian classrooms, made in the pre-covid19 era, are meant for two learners already. The space in between is less than one metre.

Open spaces have been mentioned as a possible alternative, but this will depend on weather and temperature, number of students, minimizing distractions, and teachers’ voice projection. Schools can best decide at this level, keeping in mind safety guidelines. We abhor the thought of students learning under a tree, but covid19 has made this an option in many countries, as long as students are safe from a falling tree. Many schools have more than 1,000 learners, and quite a few have more than 10,000 learners. Even limiting class size to 40 will not work for these schools. In some cases the practical thing to do will be to let some classes come to school every other day, or even once a week. Learners will need to be given work to continue doing on the days they are not in school.

When a learner is showing signs that might pertain to a covid19 infection, schools are supposed to have spaces for isolationing. They should call either 54747 or 929 and wait for a covid19 team to arrive. The majority of primary and secondary schools in Malawi are in rural areas; 90 percent for primary schools, and 77 percent for secondary schools. There have been reports that the special phone numbers sometimes do not work, and when they do, the covid19 team is overwhelmed with the current cases, most of which have occurred in urban areas. There will be need to increase the response teams so that teachers and students who contract covid19 can receive prompt attention.

The most important success factor in implementing the re-opening guidelines will be leadership at the school, zonal, district and division leadership level. Schools that will leverage good leadership at these levels will achieve the requirements and will re-open. Schools that fail at these leadership levels will lag behind, and we will be exacerbate socio-economic inequalities that are already rife in this country.

This covid19 moment gives us an opportunity to rethink our education system and imagine its future. The majority of our adolescents are not even part of the school system, as the 2018 census data shows. Only 18 percent of the secondary school age-cohort are actually in school; 82 percent are not. Our tertiary enrollment rate is 0.8 percent, the lowest in the world as Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza reminds us from time to time. It is no wonder that the majority of our adult population does not have a school qualification.

Covid19 has come at a serendipitous time when the Ministry of Education is finishing the next National Education Sector and Investment Plan for the 2020-2030 decade. It has also come as we are discussing the long term national development plan, Vision 2063. We can do no better than putting education, and the nation’s unschooled majority, at the centre of that vision. This entails shifting our paradigm towards seeing education as a continuous, lifelong process for everyone.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Transcendental Thandika: Tribute to a Global Pan-African Luminary

In 2011, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) had planned to hold a colloquium in Malawi, to celebrate the lifetime contributions of Professor Thandika Mkandawire to global knowledge. The colloquium was being co-organised together with the University of Malawi, and the Archie Mafeje Research Institute of the University of South Africa (UNISA). The dates for the conference were 2-4th May. Three weeks before the colloquium, CODESRIA issued a statement announcing a postponement of the event. The reason for the postponement was “gross violations of academic freedom” in the University of Malawi. CODESRIA wanted to express solidarity with University of Malawi Chancellor College lecturers, who were on strike.

The strike was triggered by an event that happened on the evening of 12th February, 2011. Then Inspector General of the Malawi Police Service, Mr Peter Mukhito, had summoned University of Malawi political scientist, Professor Blessings Chinsinga. Professor Chinsinga was teaching a public policy course, and to illustrate a point, he used an example from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, referred to as the Arab Spring. One student in the class, a police officer, reported Professor Chinsinga to his supervisors in the police service. The ensuing academic freedom strike lasted beyond an academic year.

The colloquium eventually happened five years later, from 11th to 14th April 2016, in Lilongwe. It was themed “Thinking African, Epistemological Issues: Celebrating the Life and Work of Thandika Mkandawire.” I had just joined the Catholic University of Malawi a month earlier. Participants came from different parts of the world, totalling 21 countries, according to the programme. There were 48 presentations, spread over 13 sessions. There were two keynote addresses, one by Thandika Mkandawire himself. It was my fifth or sixth time to meet Thandika in person, someone I had first heard about some 26 years earlier. The story of how I first heard about Thandika is one I feel compelled to narrate.

In narrating the story of my encounters with Thandika, I will describe how he brought me into his fold, inviting me to two of the institutions that shaped and defined his life’s work. I will discuss why Thandika’s work was important for Africa and the for the world, and conclude with thoughts on the legacy he has left for the engaged academy in Malawi and beyond.

At Sunbird Lilongwe Hotel, 2014

Let me start toward the end of my secondary school days. My secondary school English teacher, Mr Lot Dzonzi (who would go on to become Inspector General of Police, and later Malawi’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN), wanted me to think of myself as a serious writer. He would take me to his friends who were writers and were teaching at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College. Through Mr Dzonzi I got to meet and know the likes of Wokomaatani Malunga and Garton Kamchedzera. He encouraged me to introduce myself to other writers as well. I met Prof Steve Chimombo (R.I.P.), who introduced me to Dr. Anthony Nazombe (RIP), both of whom were lecturers in the Chancellor College Department of English. I frequented their offices and showed them my poetry and fiction, which they generously gave feedback on. I was not a University of Malawi student, but they still welcomed me in their offices and in the Chancellor College Writers' Workshop. This was in 1989, and I was 18 years old. One such afternoon, I sat in Dr Nazombe’s office as he went through a poem I had written. We discussed several things, and at some point he mentioned the name Thandika Mkandawire, whom he said was Executive Secretary at CODESRIA. As a teenage secondary school leaver, this did not mean very much to me, until about a decade later.

In August 1997 I arrived in Iowa City, in the American midwest, to attend the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme (IWP). It was the third time a Malawian writer was attending the programme. Edison Mpina (R.I.P.) was the first Malawian, in 1982, and Steve Chimombo followed in 1983. A Malawian who was finishing his PhD in Comparative Literature at Iowa, Dean Makuluni, introduced me to an email listserv for Malawians in the diaspora, called Nyasanet. These were very early days of the Internet. Dean Makuluni helped me open my first ever email account and subscribe to Nyasanet, the first ever Malawian social media space. I soon found that Thandika was a prominent voice on the forum, sharing all kinds of content on Malawi’s history, African politics, and global economics.

In 1998, Kofi Annan (RIP), then UN Secretary General, appointed Thandika as Executive Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). It was very big news, and I wrote a news article on it. It was published by The Nation newspaper back home. Later in 1998 I started graduate school at Iowa, and began taking a strong interest in Thandika’s academic work. That interest continued throughout my graduate school years. We exchanged quite a few emails with Thandika throughout that period.

Back in Malawi working on a teacher professional development project, Thandika sent me an email, sometime in 2011. He was alerting me to a programme the London School of Economics (LSE) was establishing. It was the Programme for African Leadership (PfAL), and LSE was inviting applications for the first cohort of fellows. To establish the programme, LSE had received a generous donation from one of its alumni, Firoz Lalji, a Ugandan based in Canada. Thandika wanted to make sure I did not miss the opportunity. I applied, and in 2012 became one of the inaugural LSE PfAL fellows. Thandika was one of our lecturers, and he focused on an area he had done pioneering research in and had become globally renowned for, developmental states. We had lectures from other world leading scholars in areas that included social policy, human rights, climate change, women, gender and population, and leadership ethics.

In the course of the programme, Thandika took me to his office in the LSE Department of International Development, where we had long chats on various matters. One evening we took the tube and went to a fancy London restaurant where we had dinner and a long conversation. To date, PfAL has trained more than 400 young Africans, including three other Malawians. PfAL is now part of a larger initiative under the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the LSE.

From November 2014 to December 2015 Thandika was Visiting Professor and Senior Fellow in Residence in the Building Bridges programme, in the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice (later renamed Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance). With the facilitation of Dr Marianne Camerer, programme director for the Building Bridges programme, Thandika gave a series of lectures, and ran regional workshops around the broader theme of African Economic Integration. The workshops were held in Dakar, Lusaka and Dar es Salaam, and involved up to 120 participants from 20 African countries. For the Dakar workshop, Thandika and Marianne invited twenty-one scholars, in October 2015. I was at the University of Botswana at the time, where one of the courses I was teaching was on curriculum and language policy in Africa. My presentation was titled “Breaking the Deadlock: Language, Integration and the African Renaissance,” in which I argued about the importance of African languages in the journey toward the African Renaissance.

In his reaction to my presentation, Thandika observed how African languages were enjoying a new lease of life, through mobile phone companies who used local language themes in various promotions of their products. Thandika was a firm believer in the importance of African languages in African development. One testimony for that is a 2005 book he edited, titled African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development. Amongst the chapters in the book is one by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, on the promotion of African languages as the challenge of Pan-Africanist intellectuals in the era of globalization. Another one is by Beban Sammy Chumbow, on the language question and national development in Africa.

Before I left Dakar to return to Gaborone, I had a conversation with Thandika, in which he told me about why he had invited me to the workshop. In the course of the workshop, Thandika had shared several stories about his time in Dakar in the 70s and then again in the mid-80s through to the mid-90s. That was when he served as Executive Secretary of CODESRIA. Thandika wanted me to appreciate the role CODESRIA played in Africa’s intellectual life and research agenda. Having brought me to CODESRIA’s headquarters, it was important that I respond to and participate in as many CODESRIA events as possible. It would be a great thing for me to become a paid-up member, he added.

Thandika would repeat that exact advice about getting involved with CODESRIA when we met again, five months later. That was in April 2016, in Lilongwe, during the colloquium to celebrate his life and work. He said had wanted me to participate because it was another CODESRIA event.

I eventually paid my membership to CODESRIA in 2018. That year, CODESRIA held its 15th General Assembly, in Dakar, Senegal, a triennial event. When Thandika saw from the programme that I would be attending and presenting a paper, he sent me an email in which he asked me to bring recent issues of Malawi’s daily newspapers and magazines. I brought him copies of The Nation, the Daily Times and their weekend versions, and The Lamp magazine. He always kept up to date with what was going on in Malawi.

I arrived in Dakar on the afternoon of Saturday, 15th December, 2018. The following day, Sunday the 16th, David Nthengwe, a Dakar-based Malawian working for the United Nations, came to pick me up from my hotel. We joined Thandika and his wife Kaarina Klint, at Le Cabanon, a pleasant restaurant overlooking the shimmering, expansive West African Ocean (otherwise known as Atlantic). As we got up to go to the lunch buffet, I noticed that everyone left their phones and tablets on the table. I tagged at David and asked if it was safe to leave our gadgets on the table. "Very safe. Nobody would steal them here." He said. "You mean here at this restaurant, or..." Before I could finish, David replied: "I mean here in Senegal. People don't steal in this country." I was very surprised. "How do you build a country like that, with no thieves?" I asked. "Now that's a very good question. Let's ask Thandika."

We asked Thandika how it was possible that people didn’t steal in Senegal. Thandika thought it was because Senegal had not gone through the brutality and hardships other African countries had gone through. "When people are treated kindly by their governments, they treat each other kindly too. They do not become violent criminals" (paraphrased). We spent much of that afternoon listening to Thandika talk about his youth in Zambia and Malawi, his secondary school days at Zomba Catholic (Box 2), his active participation in the struggle for Malawi's independence, his journalism days at the Malawi News in the early 60s, and many other fascinating topics. He told us about how Aleke Banda turned down a scholarship to go and study for a degree at Harvard, opting to work on the forefront of the struggle for Malawi’s independence.

He told us about his studies in the US, becoming stateless in Ecuador during a research trip, and ending up in Sweden where he was offered citizenship. It was chilling to hear him say he still met, in Sweden, one of the people who betrayed him, leading to Kamuzu Banda’s order to strip Thandika of his Malawian citizenship. He retold a story he had told me back in 2016 in Lilongwe. While living in Dakar in the 70s and again in the 80s, a group of Malawian government officials came to study for their masters’ degrees. Thandika taught some of the courses in the programme.

On completing their degrees, the Malawians would not dare take their masters theses with them back to Malawi. Kamuzu Banda’s machinery was notorious for putting people into detention without trial for things they had written, even for research purposes. One of the former students from the 70s came to meet Thandika in Lilongwe in 2016. “Do you remember the story I told you about those Malawians who came to Dakar for their masters’ degrees, but left their theses behind for fear of Kamuzu?” He asked me, pointing toward a Malawian who had come to greet him. “He was one of them.” We all burst out into a loud laugh.

Amongst the most memorable sessions at the 2018 CODESRIA General Assembly was a tribute to the late Professor Samir Amin, an Egyptian Pan-Africanist and political economist who died on 12th August that year. Many scholars present spoke about Prof Amin and his contributions to African institutions, scholarship and freedom. An entire special issue of the CODESRIA Bulletin was dedicated to reflections on Amin’s life and work. As Director of the African Institute for Economic Development Planning (IDEP) in Dakar, Amin gave CODESRIA an institutional home and a foundation. He became CODESRIA’s inaugural Executive Secretary, and amongst the people he worked with in the early years, was Thandika.

That evening of Thursday, 20th December, 2018, the penultimate day to the end of the 15th CODESRIA General Assembly in Dakar, Thandika spoke last and closed the Samir Amin tribute session. He said no one had shaped his life the way Samir Amin did. He spoke about how he first met Amin in Stockholm, Sweden. As a student in Sweden, Thandika had penned a rather critical review of Amin’s book and sent it to Amin, not knowing Amin would be coming to Stockholm. Amin came to Stockholm, and Thandika invited him home. They discussed Thandika’s review, among other things. “Samir Amin was opposed to typologies but ironically he wrote the best treatment of typologies in African economies,” said Thandika.

He went on to say Amin was both Marxist and nationalist, something that was hard for the left, including for people like Kwame Nkrumah and Claude Ake. Said Thandika: “The worst sin you could commit with Samir Amin was not to be nationalist. You could be a bad Marxist, do bad class analysis, but you could set him off if you were not nationalist in the sense of defending Africa and Africa's interests. We will miss Samir Amin. The world will miss Samir Amin in that sense.”

At Crossroads Hotel, after Thandika's public lecture to the Economics Association of Malawi, August 2013. Photo credit: Levi Kabwato

As of April 2016, Thandika had ninety-one publications to his name, according to the programme document CODESRIA printed for the colloquium to celebrate Thandika’s life and work. There were twenty pieces he had written in various outlets; twenty-four book chapters; thirty-five journal articles, and ten books he had authored or edited. He published a few more works after that, but was spending much of his time working on a book which he wanted to be the most definitive expression of his overall thoughts on how international financial institutions had shaped development economics and African economies.

A good overview of Thandika’s thought over the decades can be found in two events. The first is his inaugural lecture when he became Professor and the first ever Chair of African Development at the London School of Economics. He gave that lecture on 27th April, 2010. Titled ‘Running while others walk: knowledge and the challenge of Africa’s development,’
it was a much-anticipated event. Thandika argued, in the lecture, that Africa’s development problems were problems of knowledge and the undermining of African expertise and experience. He argued for broader systems of education and knowledge, observing that human capital models and education for all campaigns were too narrow to deliver the transformation that Africa needed.

Thandika blamed the problems of African development on types of biases, including anti-education, anti-intellectual and anti-elite biases. The aid establishment had created a reward system that favoured consultancy reports over peer-reviewed journal articles, effectively sidelining home-grown African knowledge. “A people’s existence is not defined only by their material conditions but also by their ideas and moral views. Africans do not live by bread alone. That said, bread matters,” said Thandika in the inaugural lecture.

He argued that the crisis of African development, brought about largely by neoliberal policies, was related to the crisis of African universities. He called on Africanists at Western institutions such as the LSE to support their African colleagues “against the ravages of the consultancy syndrome that rewards reports over refereed academic papers.” He further asked Western academics to support African academics against what he termed the “criminal negligence” of African governments that gave way to pressures to commercialise education systems.

Another occasion that provides one with a brief yet comprehensive narrative of Thandika’s intellectual biography is an interview he gave to Kate Meagher, published in a 2019 issue of the journal Development and Change, from the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. The interview was published under the title ‘Reflections of an Engaged Economist: An Interview with Thandika Mkandawire.’ In the discussion, Thandika articulated his views on what two decades of structural adjustment policies had done to African economies. He said compared to the American Great Depression of the 1930s, the period of structural adjustment policies in Africa lasted much longer. We should call it, he suggested, the Great African Depression.

Three decades after the SAPs, per capita incomes in Africa were yet to return to those of the 70s. The World Bank, he observed, had been expressing mea culpas over their policies on infrastructure, higher education, state institutions, sequencing of policies, and policy ownership, among others. “If you have that many mea culpas, you create an economy, and that economy behaves in a particular way. These are some of the legacies we should be looking at to understand African economies, not just colonial or pre-colonial legacies.” 

Thandika was equally critical of African governments as he was of “their peripatetic international advisers”. But there was a distinction: “The latter could always walk away from the scene of crime, while African policymakers were left with the smoking gun.”
Thandika said he was critical of both “Hopeless Africa” and “Africa rising” tropes, which he said neglected the history of their legacies and consequences on current realities. Whereas the Great Depression in the West had led to many new economic ideas, in Africa the neoliberal hegemony had blocked any new thinking. Arguing that SAPs had eroded capacities of African states to capture rents from commodity booms, he used the example of Chile which made $35 billion from copper, while Zambia made only $200 million from its copper. The erosion of human capital led to the neglect of higher education, resulting in the brain drain, and in the incapacitation of African institutions.

As currently practiced, Thandika was critical of social policy in Africa, which he said was largely donor-driven, and did not link to socio-economic transformation. He said donors had been very clever in “using the little money they give to leverage the entire policy regime.” He urged African governments to seriously focus on domestic resource mobilization. “No amount of foreign capital will satisfy the needs of the continent,” he said. The majority of global savings, 61 percent, goes to the United States. China was able to industrialise through domestic savings, relying on foreign investment only for technology, not capital.  SAPs had subdued Africa’s aspirations and had limited the continent’s visions, said Thandika. Thandika’s numerous works provide greater detail to this and many of his ground-breaking ideas, but it is not the purpose of this piece to get into that kind of detail.

At Le Cabanon, Dakar, Senegal, with David Nthengwe and Thandika, December 2018

As I draw to the conclusion of this tribute, I would like to return to my last meeting with Thandika, and then back to the 2016 colloquium and the legacy it created for Malawi’s academic space. My last in-person meeting with Thandika was in December, 2018. On the day I arrived in Dakar for the CODESRIA General Assembly, I bumped into him in the lobby of the King Fahd Palace Hotel, the venue of the conference. We exchanged greetings, and I handed over to him the newspapers and magazines I had brought from Malawi. I asked him about the book he had said he had been working on for some years. He beckoned for us to sit down on a chair. He took out his laptop, opened a document, and went to a page with a graph. That graph, he said, showed how much African economies had been growing from the time of independence, up to the time of the SAPs. The decline was dramatic. He said he still had some work to do on the manuscript before it could be complete.

After the colloquium to celebrate Thandika’s life and work in 2016, I returned to campus at the Catholic University of Malawi with a new determination. It had been a phenomenal week celebrating Thandika and engaging in fascinating conversations about higher education in Malawi and in Africa. There had to be a way of continuing with those conversations, at least for the Malawians.

On 28th April 2016, I sent out an email to twenty-five friends and colleagues working in universities in Malawi and abroad. I asked them if there was an association of Malawian university lecturers, and if there was an online forum where they shared ideas. It seemed there were none. I shared with the colleagues an idea about creating a google forum, to be called Higher Ed Malawi. A handful of them responded and encouraged the idea. “I think the forum is a brilliant idea but you may have to have a light touch moderation to avoid sectarian capture,” was Thandika’s advice. He became an active presence on the forum.

To date, the forum has just over 400 participants, drawn from universities and colleges in Malawi and beyond. In June 2018, Malawian academics from the forum organised the first ever international higher education conference, under the theme ‘Higher Education in the 21st Century.’ As the conference came to an end, the organising committee was reconstituted, and converted into a task force charged with the responsibility of creating the Universities and Colleges Association of Malawi (UCAM). The new committee is organising the next international higher education conference, to be held later this year.

Admiring the breadth, depth and originality of Thandika’s ideas, I have sometimes wished I had become a development economist myself. But Thandika was much more than a development economist. He transcended disciplinary boundaries. He was a transdisciplinary intellectual and provided penetrating insights into complex global problems. I have attempted to follow his path by being an eclectic reader and lifelong student of ideas.

As one whose main thrust is curriculum and the education of teachers, and latterly public policy, I have drawn insights from Thandika’s views on human knowledge. I have used epistemological lenses to develop a sociological perspective of knowledge production for the purpose that Julius Nyerere ascribed to education in Africa. Nyerere ascribed two purposes to education. One was the process by which a society passes on to the next generation the knowledge and values it holds to be important. The other was a duty to contribute to society and to the greater good of humanity. Thandika fulfilled both purposes, and he has passed on the mantle. May his kind, gentle and compassionate soul rest in peace.